(Voices Under the Mango Tree, an investigative documentary on the Badaun double hangings premiered on Channel NewsAsia in February 2015. Produced by Storyteller Films for the series Undercover Asia, this blog though goes behind the scenes to capture some of the quirks of this region as discovered by the team while filming the documentary.)
Badaun, a tiny dot on the map of Uttar Pradesh is a little over 6 hours from Delhi. To put it in perspective, that is as long as it takes to go from Delhi to Shimla, Bangalore to Chennai or London to Edinburgh! Almost in the heart of this small town is a brand new hotel that boasts of wifi in all rooms. Not just that – the hotel is right above a supermarket that is so well stocked that I contemplated doing my monthly groceries before leaving Badaun. It retailed brands we don’t always get in Mumbai. Their restaurant served delicious North Indian staples like dal tadka/makhni, tandoori chicken and alu parathas. We knew it was going to be a tough shoot, but we had found an unexpectedly comfortable base camp – our home for the next 10 days as we investigated the case. What we didn’t know was that this was going to be the first of many twists that would challenge both - our perception of Badaun and the double hangings.
|The 'Mango Tree'|
|Home of the Victims|
And peel we did. It took us time to gain trust. To convince we had no preconceived notions of what happened. We were neutral, unbiased and willing to start from scratch. Most of our on-cam interviews were done twice, some thrice and even more - a series of questions and cross-questions to get as close to the truth as possible. But in this story, truth was always going to be a premium. We were dealing with a seasoned group of people who always gauged how much we knew, before they answered.
|Nazru - key eyewitness|
When they finally opened up, stories tumbled A policeman whose identity we have to protect, admitted to some shocking procedural lapses. The accused-and-then-freed Yadav men agreed to narrate their version of what happened that fatal night on-cam. But the most stunning revelation came from the key eyewitness, almost at the end of his third interview. It was an extraordinary twist that completely altered the line of investigation. Much as I would like to reveal the findings here, I'd rather let our documentary do the talking. (Watch the tease here, followed by the link to the full documentary.)
In retrospect, I think by the time our team reached the village months after the incident, Katra Shahadatganj was fatigued by the case. The novelty of the media attention had worn off. It was now an irritant. On the very second day of our shoot, as we were filming the mango tree at dusk, the Outpost Incharge of the Village Police Station came up to our team and subtly warned us about staying back in Katra after dark. He said we were pretty much on our own, and there was little he could do to protect us in ‘tamancha land’ (Tamancha is a country made revolver). In other words, don’t push the wrong buttons! I must admit, he spooked us out a bit.
The Police Outpost is a nondescript brick/mud house in the heart of the village that triples up as home, kitchen and a police station. All the 5 cops stationed at the Outpost live, work, bathe and sleep in the same space. Electricity is an erratic luxury for about 3 hours a day. This is where the fathers of the victims were held that night and abused by the local cops who were said to have sided with the Yadav men. Although the cops from ‘that night’ have either been transferred or suspended, the new lot was hesitant about discussing the case insisting they had nothing to add. But in an informal off-cam chat, they admitted that the local police were to blame for mishandling the first 24 crucial hours of investigation. However, they also added that policing these regions was challenging. "The average people to police ratio is 1:1000. We have 2 Police Outposts covering 60 to 70 villages among 30 constables. We have roads that don’t let us drive over 30 kms/hr. We don’t have enough women constables to investigate crimes against women. And then we are at the mercy of politicians who transfer us for decisions that don’t please them. We work 24X7, are transferred every 2 or 3 months, our families cant be with us. Despite this, no matter what we do, we are inevitably the villains in most cases."
|The graves of the victims by the Ganges|
All said and done, Katra Shahadatganj is truly fed up of this blot on its reputation. As the Village Head tells us, “In a radius of 50kms around this village, there are no high schools or colleges. There is no source of employment – no industry, no factories. We were anyway backward; this incident has not just created a permanent social stigma, but taken us further back in time. Why can’t someone adopt our village and make us a part of the ‘ideal village’ campaign with better infrastructure, education, sanitation, roads and security for women?” This is a refrain we heard often in that region.
It’s another story though, that the Village Head (Pradhan) was not really the official head of the village. Although like most politicians in this country his posters followed us everywhere, the truth was that his wife held the official post. We were later told that this was routine - the position of the Village-Head fell under the women’s quota. Therefore, like Laloo’s Rabri, this Pradhan too did his bit for ‘gender equality’. Infact, I think it was our fault that we allowed his face on all the posters to overwhelm us; we didn’t really read the copy that described him as poet, thinker and social worker!
He is also an actor. His cronies proudly claim that their boss is a seasoned Meghnaad (Ravan’s son). We soon discovered that many in this village had dual identities, often also known for the iconic Ram Leela characters they had been playing for years. Be it Ravan or Ram, they were quite happy to flaunt their own mythical doppelgangers. Suddenly, we had found a pool of talent for all the reconstruction that we had to do. Infact, the actor who played Nazru in our film was part of this same Ram Leela cult. While his day job was at our hotel, he did moonlight as an actor in Bhojpuri music videos, but more importantly, he was a renowned ‘Ravan’ in his hometown. And he came to our rescue when we were unable to find a girl, willing to be cast as one of the victims. He convinced the hotel receptionist who agreed on the condition that the female crew drop her home at night after the shoot. Surprisingly, she was a natural on camera and thankfully without the trappings of the Ram Leela-isque melodrama. But we were in for a bigger surprise when we drop her home that night; she lived in a neighbourhood in Badaun where her house didn't have a door!
Hidden stories like this popped up now and then. We found a feisty young girl who had not only abandoned her husband and in-laws in Delhi after being repeatedly abused for Dowry demands; she had also a filed a case against them and now regularly follows up in court. She was also studying again to complete her schooling and keen to do a vocational course in order to become financially independent. Her impoverished family was very supportive. The irony was that she was not just a very good friend of both victims, but also their neighbour!
If there is another quirk in these belts, it’s that everyone is loaded… with a tamancha or a country made pistol. We had asked someone in a village to organise a whole set of props to help reconstruct the crime. We had also very tentatively asked him to source a tamancha, but were skeptical about it being organized at such short notice. He just smiled and said, "Don't worry, that is really the easiest of the list." All I could then say was just make sure it's not loaded!" And while we were filming the scene that night, a whole bunch of young boys from the village were so inspired that they decided to show off their gun collection to this media crew from Mumbai. I think they were quite amused to see how terrified we were around guns, even though the boys claimed they were not loaded. Isn't it ironical that most of us from urban Indian spaces live out our lives without seeing a real gun, while here it’s almost as common as a mobile phone.
|Voices under the Neem tree|
Clearly, the story of the Badaun hangings goes well beyond that night. It lays bare some of the most disturbing mindsets and social norms that perpetrate gender violence in India today. So, were the girls murdered or victims of honour killing? Or is there a far greater sinister truth that lies in their graves? The voices are all out there… but will they ever reveal their secrets? Like I said, in this part of the world, nothing truly is what it seems.
For more on the case and the actual investigation, do watch #VoicesUndertheMangoTree